A satirical essay on how to prepare for open heart surgery…
by Dave D’Auria
That first appointment with the cardiac surgeon was critical. I just knew I could talk him into fixing my mitral valve arthroscopically. As soon as I made my case he said “here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m going to use a chainsaw; cut thru your chest cage and sternum; split you open like a chicken; cut open your heart; use some duct tape to fix your valve; and then wire you shut using a couple of coat hangers. Then I’ll see you again in a month. Have a nice day! “
You know that “you gotta be shitting me” look you sometimes get from people? Well Carol and I had it when old Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre left the office! Wow! How do you prepare for that kinda news? There’s no handbook, so here are a few tips that may help others.
First, if your open heart surgery is elective in nature, DON’T DO IT! Trust me you will be so fucking sorry you did! And by the way, who in the world would say yes to “elective” heart surgery? Believe me, we ain’t talking tummy tuck here!
Second, there’s really no way to “get in shape” to reduce some of the chest pain that follows your open heart surgery. To prepare to experience it though you may want to have your spouse or significant other hit you in the chest with a handheld sledgehammer to the tempo of your own heart beat. He/she may enjoy it, but trust me you won’t. You’ll be in for a shock when you take those first few breaths on your own and you realize you survived the surgery. I would compare it to John Hurt’s chest-burster scene from the Aliens movie!
Third – the breathing tube. I was only vaguely aware when they took out my breathing tube. What I do remember was thinking they must have used an innertube from the old Palisades Park Wave Pool! There was NO WAY they could have stuffed that much tube down anyone’s throat! Move over Linda Lovelace! You’ve been replaced! It takes about 24 hours to really assess what happens in your mouth and throat from a breathing tube. Sore gums; sore tongue; sore throat; a couple of sore teeth; and a uvula that felt like it had been used as a sparring partner by Smokin’ Joe Frazier! Just in case you don’t know, your uvula is that piece of flesh that hangs like a punching bag in the back of your throat. My voice still sounds like a cross between the great Satchmo and Carol Channing. I could easily make a believable sore throat commercial! I will leave it to you to determine how you want to get your throat ready for 3 or 4 feet of breathing tube! But don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Fourth – pain management. Having chronic neck, back and shoulder problems and being the proud bearer of scars from multiple back surgeries and spinal fusion I’d say I have a pretty high tolerance for pain. It took 2 1/2 days to get the right balance of drugs to get my pain under control. The first few hours after my surgery were the worst. I had some cranberry juice in the recovery room, and the combination of the juice in an empty stomach, and a wave of pain the dilaudid wasn’t helping gave me the dry heaves, followed by three waves of projectile vomiting. I’m sure my vomits were much cooler than Linda Blair’s in the Exorcist movie! Do you know how hard it is to involuntarily sit up in bed and heave and vomit one hour after open heart surgery, while your entire upper torso feels like it’s still nailed to the hospital bed? TIP: when they offer you those little mouth swabs dipped in ice water immediately after surgery, take em,’ and DON’T ASK FOR CRANBERRY JUICE, which I’ve now sworn off for life!
Fifth – sleep. Don’t expect any until you get out of the hospital! Every hour on the hour the nurse assistants came in to take my vitals. Not sure why that was necessary as I was already hooked up to more machines than you would see at an Apple Computer show! There are probably multiple ways of preparing for 3-4 days of zero sleep. I’d suggest that you contact CIA and ask them to waterboard you hourly for three or four days to get your body used to the experience.
Sixth – learning to get out of bed that first time without bracing yourself and/or using your hands, arms or any part of your upper body. You won’t realize how hard this is until you actually have to do it. That first time was like Harry Houdini trying to get out of a straight jacket strapped to a hospital bed. I asked the nurse if they could hang one of those dog rope toys above my head so I could pull myself up using my teeth. She said no, that would be cheating! Say what? I still think it’s a good way to prepare for that first harrowing and mind boggling pain excursion of trying to rise from the dead.
Seventh – IV ports, shots and needles. There is virtually no area on either wrist or arm that is not either black and blue, multi-colored, or pin hole marked from all the shots. The worst was the IV port in the side of my neck. I looked like a 50% version of Frankenstein with one neck terminal missing. The best way I can think of to prepare for this would be to have your friends over for a party and practice playing pin the tail on the donkey with you as the target.
Eighth – the drain tubes. After the first day of recovery you’ll become aware of two or more tubes stitched to and hanging out of the middle of your stomach draining fluid from your lungs. Now that might sound medically cool, but trust me physically it is not cool! The Sting song “Every Breath you Take and Every Move you Make” applies here because you just can’t get away from the feeling of some paranormal event going on in your stomach! The tubes came out three days after the surgery. The nurse said “we’re going to practice taking out the tubes. When I say three, I want you to take a deep breath and hold it.” Wow! That was fun! To prepare for this experience you might want to practice pulling a lit sparkler out from some part of your stomach. Make sure you count to three and hold your breath!
Ninth – Lasix. Lasix is a drug that surely got its name because after you take it you have to pee like an elephant every “six” minutes. They gave it to me in the hospital, and gave me a one week RX when I got out of the hospital. You know how the doctors and nurses encourage heart patients to get up and move – walk – exercise. That’s really what Lasix is for! It will guarantee you won’t become a couch potato while you’re taking it. And what’s with this gravity stuff? As soon as you wiggle and scoot your sore-chest body out of wherever you’re sitting or laying, gravity tells you you have exactly 20 seconds to make it to the john! I now know exactly how many steps and how long it takes to get to any of the bathrooms in our house, and when I’m out walking I know which neighbors are always home just in case I can’t make it back to our house to pee. My best advice? DON’T DO DRUGS, unless you’re a person who really likes to be “on the go” – “all the time!”
Tenth – Wiping your own butt. This is something I started worrying about before I had my surgery. That first post-operative paperwork exercise. And I do mean EXERCISE!!! I admit that dwelling on the question “can I wipe my own ass?” may sound silly, and even a bit “anal retentive.” Butt… it ain’t easy as an apple pie and that first time can be just as sticky! You finally get over the blockage and manage to take that long-awaited first poop, but because there are so many IV lines in both arms and hands and tubes in your chest you are rendered helpless to well, you know, finish the paperwork! I’m sure heart nurses love this part of taking care of “heart” patients. A couple games of Twister may help you prepare for that first wipe. Put your right foot behind you; next put your left foot out in front and off to the left; now lean forward and to the right or left with your non-wipe hand; now practice reaching and wiping. If you can actually do this then you definitely need to go on Star Search or America’s Got Talent!
Eleventh and finally… Constipation! A lot of people who know me well believe I’m full of shit at times. YOU HAVE NO IDEA!!! When you’re on heavy duty pain killers it takes time for your bowels to start up again, and getting any kind of downward movement is like trying to pull a three inch square peg out of a one inch round hole. The nurses tried everything but nothing was helping. I had three options left: a suppository; an enema; or a small stick of dynamite. I opted for the suppository. Much to my surprise it worked and sounded just like a small stick of dynamite!
So, a week before your heart surgery I’d suggest a strict diet of pears and figs for your meals, lentils and oat bran for your desserts, and a large cup of prune juice at every meal. Not only will it keep you from getting constipated, but you’ll likely go down in the Guinness Book of Records as the first heart patient to ever blow up an operating room!